A Trinity Professor Perpetually Seeking Art
What is art? Is it an easy junior high class, the answer to the human condition, or something in between? Famous cartoonist and theorist Scott McCloud uses a caveman to explain art. To McCloud, art is anything that goes beyond our instincts for survival or reproduction. If caveman searches for a mate, that is not art. If a caveman avoids being eaten by a tiger, that is not art. If the caveman makes a goofy face at the tiger, that is art.
To strain McCloud’s metaphor, everyone makes our own faces at our own tigers. Most of us contain ourselves to one or two faces. Regardless if one is a “movie person,” a “sports person,” a “music person” or something else, people usually stick to two to three passions they are interested in. However, one trinity professor, Mark Jones, Ph.D, is dedicated to exploring to soaking up every facet of art he can.
Mark Jones is an English professor who teaches classes such as: Introduction to Literature, Linguistics, Shakespeare, and Renaissance Literatures. The Renaissance is a particularly fitting topic, considering Jones is something of a renaissance man himself.
He has a multitude of passions and areas of study that inform his worldview. Jones is a published poet, a jazz pianist, a professor, a Shakespeare scholar, and occasional table top gamer defending the world from monsters. While all these passions might feel very different, Jones says “all of my interests are centered in one way or another on art.”
From College, To High School, To College Again
Jones’s father was a seminary professor at Covenant Theological Seminary at St. Louis. His family lived on campus. Throughout the seventies and early eighties, Jones remembers often sharing his home with professors and lectures. Even away from his house, Jones would often hang around the campus’s social spot. Such an upbringing made Jones feel at home in college life.
When it was time for Jones to start his own college career, he did not initially major in English. He started in music education. Jones even played jazz piano in a St. Louis Creole restaurant. Around sophomore year, Jones became dissatisfied with how music education approached education. He recently took an enjoyable linguistics course and always had a passion for reading, so Jones “decided to scrap everything and become an English major” with music and Spanish minors. He took to English so much that he decided to get his masters.
Out of college Jones got a job teaching Spanish, and later English, at a high school. He developed a passion for teaching in his time there but yearned “to do something at a higher level” where he would not be teaching the same books each year. As Jones went on to teach college, his multitude of passions only grew.
Jones loves teaching, as would be expected from a professor. He labels his teaching style as “fundamentally Socratic.” In other words, it is all about asking and answering questions. Throughout classes Jones tries to balance lecture and discussion. A balance allows Jones’ voice and student thinking to exist in symbiosis. He believes the best teaching is “when the students are coming up with the answers themselves.”
The strategy involves careful oversight of classroom discussion. A student of Jones, ShinHye Hwang, notes how he asks questions, “and if we don’t say anything for a given a good 20-30 seconds he would either try to ask the question in a different way or he would just try to answer himself” to ensure that conversation still moves even if students are stumped.
Perhaps one of the strangest feathers in Jones’s academic cap is his study of manga and anime. While he watched Speed Racer as a kid, Jones mostly saw anime as a cheap form of imported animation. That was until he accompanied his kids to the Anime Central convention or ACCN for short.
He would later say “the bait” for him getting into anime was “going to that convention and hanging out with all these people with their wild costumes who were clearly enthusiastic about something up to that point I knew nothing about.”
The impressing viewing rooms, interesting guests, and scores of friendly people dressed like aliens and robots convinced Jones to start looking into anime. He started reading academic work, brushed up on the classics, and even taught an anime and manga class at Trinity.
Linguistics is not only the class that convinced Jones to teach English, it is also a class he proudly teaches today. However, he does not have a passion for linguistics because it makes people better communicators.
Jones is skeptical to the degree linguistics can do that. Instead he says, “What I love about linguistics is it is playful. It’s game like. It’s not always about the nuts and bolts, it can be, but sometimes it’s about much larger issues about language and society, language and context, and extra linguistic forms of communication.”
In other words, language is systematic and beautiful. Linguistics allows us to step back from our own experience with language and see that beauty.
17th/18th Century Literature
One of Jones’s favorite areas of study, both in teaching and writing, is 17th and 18th Century Literature. Hwang says that when Jones reads Shakespeare in the class “it’s almost like he became one of the actors” and “his body gestures get a lot more lively.”
Most of the words are around 400 years old, but Jones believes “that’s part of the pleasure of reading them. You are traveling to a foreign county, but there’s an eerie familiarity about them.” Lot of the concerns brought up in 17th and 18th century literature are still familiar today. For example, the Changeling and The Duchess of Malfi bring up issues of gender.
Jones appreciates how renaissance and pre-renaissance writers approach these themes: “we live in a messed-up world, and they didn’t pull punches in the 17th century, and they shouldn’t now.”
Jones is particularly fond of the author HP Lovecraft. He even taught an interim class about Lovecraft. The interim was initially going to be students reading Lovecraft stories and eventually writing similar stories of their own, “but as I (Jones) got into the planning, a whole subculture opened up for me.” He discovered a fandom of people who play Lovecraft games, make Lovecraft games and just love the mythos overall
The class played a Lovecraft tabletop game with Jones’ friend serving as the game master. Between the game being about escaping a monster, an enthusiastic game master, and a dark basement location, the tribute to Lovecraft became “one of the scariest nights I’ve (Jones) had on campus” where “students who were shivering at the end of that experience.” It really felt like there was a creature after the class.
Bringing It All Together
Despite his immense passion for the arts, Jones never claims to be some all-knowing guru. He still claims there is still much more to learn. When asked for his own definition of art, Jones was not quite sure how to answer, so he proposed “imaginative engagement in culture” as tentative definition, albeit one he was less than satisfied with. When defining literature, Jones borrowed American novelist Mary Doria Russell’s idea that literature is something that changes you.
Between Jones’s definitions of art and literature, an idea takes form. All of his wide variety of passions are creative forms of change. While we all might not share Jones’ specific passions, we can relate to them.
Everyone has their own unique interests that make them who they are. Seeing the variety and depth of Jones’ passion is a reminder that having a wide variety of these passions adds ceaseless color to life.